Tech talk

Here are 3 pieces of Houston startup advice from Capital Factory's emerging tech panel

As a part of its Texas Startup Manifesto, Austin-based Capital Factory came into town to talk about the Houston's ecosystem and advice for tech startups looking to do business in town. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Throughout the year, Austin-based Capital Factory loads up a bus and takes startup founders and tech entrepreneurs around the Lone Star State in order to better connect the dots of innovation within Texas' major metros. The Texas Startup Manifesto bus recently put it in park outside Station Houston and hosted a tech-focused panel at Accenture's innovation hub.

The panel, which was hosted by two deep tech startup founders, asked some important questions about Houston's ecosystem and startup needs to three experts. Trevor Best of Syzygy Plasmontics and Diana Liu of Arix Technologies represented the startups, while Allison Sawyer of League of Worthwhile Ventures, Mark Volchec of Las Olas VC, and Brian Richards of Accenture fielded their questions.

The panel started out with the state of Houston's innovation ecosystem — which, of course, was the whole point of the one-day field trip to the Bayou City. The panelists seemed to agree that Houston has things it needs to improve on, but the point is not to try to copy any other market.

"We can't try to be Silicon Valley. We're just simply not," Richards says. "What we have to focus on is what our strengths are."

For instance, Houston has a lot of money within the city, but that hasn't yet translated to a large amount of investments in startups. Even if the city found $1 billion to start investing in companies, Richards says that wouldn't solve everything instantly. Houston has to be able work on the ecosystem as a whole, not just one thing in particular.

"We have so many problems to solve, and we have to solve them in parallel," Richards says. "We have to fix them all at once."

The city's ecosystem aside, the panel weighed in on some of their own advice for tech startups making waves in Houston.

Hire a business-minded leader, like, yesterday.

One of the most crucial aspect for any startup is the team behind the product, and having a diversity of expertise on that team is especially in tech startups, which are usually instigated by a tech-focused founder.

"I think it's really important to have a balanced founding team," Volchec says. "If everyone is tech, I think it's really difficult."

As a venture capitalist and former founder himself, Volchec's biggest critique is that, startups and founders don't start sales early enough. Volchec says he once signed a deal with a company before they even had a product let alone revenue. The key distinguisher for him was that the company already had contracts in place from customers.

Having that person to sell the company is so important, and you need a business-focused person at the helm to do so. For most companies, that's not the tech-minded founder.

"If you're the scientist, why do you even want to be the CEO?" Volchec asks. "The CEO's job is to be out there and selling — to investors, to clients, to employees."

According to the panelists, sooner is better for making that hire.

"if you don't hire a CEO, and you raise enough money, someone will hire a CEO for you, and you might not like that CEO," Volchec says.

Have a free discovery.

In particular, B-to-B companies should have a free trial, so to speak, for their product. It's Sawyer's pet peeve, she says, when startups charge for the discover process. It's strategic to give access to some people within the company your startup is trying to sell to, that way they get hooked and want to get more access for their whole team.

It does make the process a little more challenging, Sawyer says, since it requires a little more upfront funds.

"You do have to raise a little bit more money, but you do get to scale a lot faster," she says.

Corporate venture groups can be more than just investment. 

When looking to scale your product into bigger corporations, a way in is through corporate venturing groups, according to the panelists, even if money isn't the right fit. You're more likely to get a meeting with a venture arm than with the company itself.

"I never took corporate venture money, because they were a little too slow and it was a lot of extra accounting work, Sawyer says. "But I loved working with corporate venture when it comes to pilots. I think they are an underused resource for startups."

It also helps that more and more companies are devoting resources to these groups.

"I'm seeing corporate venture groups all over the place," Sawyer says. "Even if you're not taking their money, they will get you in the door for a pilot."

Overall, big companies are more keen to work with startups of late, says Richards, who hosts C-level execs from big companies on a daily basis in Accenture's Innovation Hub.

"I've never seen [corporations] more motivated than they are right now to be able to think differently on how they are able to engage Houston," he says.

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Building Houston

 
 

Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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